• Sunday , 24 September 2017

A New Age for Public Space

Photo credit: Ste Murray.Photo credit: Ste Murray.

We hope we’re not going anywhere anytime soon, but it’s not likely that many of us are looking forward to growing old. When I think of getting older, I picture increased challenges and greater limitations, and when I look at my surroundings, I get little reassurance. In spite of how beneficial design can be for people of all ages, the Irish built environment is arguably designed with the young, fit and mobile in mind.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Our neighbours in other countries show us that our towns and cities can be more age friendly, and there are lots of examples out there to gain inspiration from. There are large-scale measures such as the significant research and portfolio of housing schemes for the elderly that Michael Forde Bradley and his colleagues at ZESO Architects have developed in Denmark; or Hogeweyk, a village designed specifically to accommodate residents with dementia in the Netherlands. Designers of all stripes can contribute to more age friendly built environments, even in seemingly small ways. Smooth walking surfaces, frequent public seating, adequate outdoor lighting, clear and legible signage and many other measures can make our urban spaces more safe, accessible and inclusive, which benefits everyone, young and old.

De Hogeweyk, the Netherlands. Source: Hans Erkelens/CC.De Hogeweyk, the Netherlands. Source: Hans Erkelens/CC.

The need to address issues facing older people – in the built environment or otherwise – is becoming increasingly urgent as Ireland’s population ages. According to a report from the Centre for Ageing Research and Development in Ireland (CARDI), we can expect the 65+ age group to make up almost a quarter of the population by 2041. Nowhere is this more important than in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, where the population is ageing at the country’s fastest rate. As such, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council is working with and for its older citizens across a number of departments. The Council’s Arts Office is no exception, having delivered a range of programmes to engage older people in a host of different artforms. ‘It is a key part of our remit to ensure that everyone has access to the cultural life of the County,’ Máire Davey of the Arts Office tells me. ‘We began looking more closely at architecture and older people when we were awarded the Arts Council funded scheme Engaging with Architecture in 2014. As part of this we delivered an intergenerational project that was of great interest to the older people involved. It makes sense for us to look to older people to engage with the idea of architecture and public realm as it can impact on their health and wellbeing in everyday life to such an extent. This is one of the main aims of the dlr CoCo/HSE Arts and Health Partnership, and this is why we are now delivering Public Age with the HSE and the Irish Architecture Foundation.’

Public Age is an open call for architects and other disciplines to work together with older people in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown to explore, and maybe even solve, some of the challenges older people face in the public spaces they use. The winning multidisciplinary team will collaborate with a group of older people from the area from January 2017 in order to develop and deliver a public outcome – a temporary intervention, an installation, an exhibition, an event or happening – that highlights how public space is, could be or should be designed with older people in mind. It will be creative and imaginative and will show people of all ages that inclusive public space can be of massive benefit to older people in terms of their health, wellbeing and involvement in their community. IAF Director Nathalie Weadick sees the involvement of older people in programmes such as this as crucial: ‘It has become clear to us that we should work harder at opening up opportunities specifically for older people, not least because of this growing population profile, but also we believe we have a responsibility to assist their needs and aspirations, as we do with other members of the public.’

Televænget Elderly Care Centre, by Zeso Architects. Source Zeso Architects.Televænget Elderly Care Centre, by Zeso Architects. Source Zeso Architects.

Hopefully Public Age is also the first step towards increased awareness, research and activity in this area, and Nathalie has great ambitions for the project. ‘I hope that collectively the design team and the active age group identify common challenges and solutions and that these are communicated in a creative way to the wider public. I hope we can create a new model for how architects engage with community groups in any context and how community groups participate in their built environment. I hope that architects use this project to enhance their knowledge and expertise in participatory practice, and that the experience will lead to further opportunities in this area. Ultimately, I hope the learnings from this project can be adapted and used to inform policy.’ As the deadline for applications to Public Age comes nearer, it is clear that it is time to consider how we accommodate older people in our built environment. With the right awareness, support and adjustments to our built environment, perhaps we can enter a new age for public space.

Public Age is open for applications from multidisciplinary architect-led teams until 2 December. For more information, visit architecturefoundation.ie.

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